Saturday, June 07, 2008


When you write a language like Dutch, the orthography is prescribed. Its orthography changes over time but it is easily understood how to spell. When you write English, there are several ways of writing your words, English and American spelling for instance differ but it is quite clear what spelling is acceptable and what is not.

The question of what orthography to use is not a trivial one. Politics plays an important role; we learned to the consternation of many, that people on the Belarus Wikipedia were enforcing an orthography that precluded the changes that happened while the communists were in power. This even led to a rename and this is what is now the Sadly the Belarussians could not find it in themselves to work together..

In less and least resourced languages it is not always clear how to spell. Some languages have a written tradition that has fallen in disuse, some languages have multiple dialects that sound distinct. When there is no orthography taught, when not many people write a language, it is hard to get agreement on how to spell.

There are several possible competing arguments for a specific choice and when they are considered together, it is hard to decide what to do. When you maintain an old orthography, you keep the connection with the existing literature. When you create a unifying orthography and prescribe its use, there will be resistance from the people that do not spell in this way. When you write what you hear, the different dialects of a language sound different and consequently it fragments the language.

I do not know what the right way to approach this problem is. I would approach it by keeping people together; leading by example, discussing the issues and keeping the conversation going. One thing is for sure; languages change so the spelling of a language will change in time with it.

When languages are to survive, it all depends on having as many people as possible communicate in a language by talking, listening, signing, watching, reading and writing.
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